The Three-Dimensional Contrivances of AZAR

 Commissioned by Iranian Film Magazine in early December, 2017. — J.R.

Azar

 

It might be argued that domestic melodramas are often based on contrivances. This is true of both Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (2016) and Mohammed Hamzei and Ehsan Biglari’s Azar (2017), two of the better Iranian domestic melodramas that I’ve seen in recent years. But the different ways in which these films handle their contrivances is instructive.

The-Salesman-Photo-2

Farhadi — whom I tend to regard as the Elia Kazan of Iranian cinema, for better and for worse, typically generating more heat than light in his most popular works, as Kazan did in On the Waterfront and East of Eden — is more conventionally skillful with his Big Scenes than the team of Biglari (writer) and Hamzei (director) are with theirs. This is because Farhadi knows how to disguise his contrivances so that they don’t seem contrived at all, but dramatically inevitable, such as the sexual impropriety that spurs most of the action in The Salesman as well as the various dramatic confrontations that result from this.

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By contrast, the Big Scenes in Azar tend to be awkwardly unconvincing (notably, the accidental death of Saber from a brief scuffle with his cousin Amir arising from a financial dispute), or played down (the uncle of Amir smashing windows in his nephew’s pizzeria with his fist), or else omitted entirely (the pivotal meeting between Amir and his uncle in prison).… Read more »

Betty Comden/Adolph Green/Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly/Cyd Charisse

IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER, directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Dan Dailey, Michael Kidd, and Dolores Gray.

Has there ever been a more deceptive title and ad for a movie than this Belgian poster for the depressive 1955 musical IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER? Not that the original title or the strained happy ending are exactly apt either. [I resaw this movie yesterday, on my last day at Il Cinema Ritrovato, and might have written about this sooner -– i.e., before I returned to Chicago -– if I’d been able to figure out a way to paste in photos on my laptop.] But in fact it expresses more negative feelings about American culture at mid-century than anything by Frank Tashlin. Tashlin, after all, always seems to love his characters, but what mainly typifies the satirical feelings here about television, advertising, and other forms of corruption are disgust, disillusionment, self-hatred, and anger. It seems characteristic that Kelly and Charisse, the romantic leads, never even get to dance together, and that Dolores Gray’s climactic number, “Thanks a Lot, but No Thanks” (see still), registers as a conscious ripoff of Monroe’s glacially bitter “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.… Read more »

Prewar Jitters [on Lang's MAN HUNT]

From the Chicago Reader (May 6, 2002). — J.R.

Man Hunt

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Fritz Lang

Written by Dudley Nichols

With Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders, John Carradine, Roddy McDowall, Heather Thatcher, and Frederick Worlock.

A sparkling new 35-millimeter print of Fritz Lang’s 1941 Man Hunt is running at the Gene Siskel Film Center all this week, and I can recommend it without reservation. It’s not quite a masterpiece, but it’s considerably more entertaining than any new thrillers I’m aware of.

Man Hunt‘s status within Lang’s body of work is somewhat ambiguous and contested. Ten years ago one of France’s major film historians, Bernard Eisenschitz, wrote a 270-page book on the film in which he pored over many of the production materials as if they were holy writ. Yet Tom Gunning’s authoritative recent critical study, the 528-page The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, scarcely deals with the film at all, apart from mentioning that it “would reward close analysis” and contending that it, like Lang’s three other anti-Nazi films — Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), and Cloak and Dagger (1946) — is limited by its propagandistic qualities.

I only half agree with Gunning.… Read more »

The Limits of Memory [THE BLONDS & ROSENSTRASSE]

From the Chicago Reader (August 27, 2004). — J.R.

The Blonds

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Albertina Carri

With Analia Couceyro.

Rosenstrasse

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Margarethe von Trotta

Written by Pamela Katz and von Trotta

With Katja Riemann, Maria Schrader, Martin Feifel, Jurgen Vogel, Jutta Lampe, Doris Schade, and Fedja van Huet.

It was a severe disappointment, Beyle [Stendhal] writes, when some years ago, looking through old papers, he came across an engraving entitled Prospetto d’Ivrea and was obliged to concede that his recollected picture of the town in the evening sun was nothing but a copy of that very engraving. This being so, Beyle’s advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one’s travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say they destroy them. — W.G. Sebald, Vertigo

I don’t know if some memories are real or if they’re my sisters’. –Albertina Carri in The Blonds

When I was in junior high school in the 50s I associated Stanley Kramer’s name — first as a producer, then as a producer-director — with offbeat, somewhat worthy highbrow ventures such as Cyrano de Bergerac, Death of a Salesman, High Noon, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr.Read more »

Daney in English: A Letter to Trafic

 

Written for and originally published (in French translation) in Trafic no. 37 (printemps 2001); also reprinted in my 2010 collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.

Chicago, November 13, 2000

Dear Jean-Claude, Patrice, Raymond, and Sylvie,

Trying to find a useful way to discuss Serge Daney in an Anglo-American context, it’s hard not to feel a little demoralized. I recently looked up the letter I wrote to a university press editor in early 1995, not very much shorter than this one, enumerating -– to no avail -– all the reasons why bringing out a collection of Serge’s film criticism in English was an urgent matter and a first priority, almost comparable in some ways to what making Bazin available in English had been in the ’60s.

I believe this might have been the longest “reader’s report” I’ve ever written for a publisher. I was trying to persuade the editor to publish a translation of Daney texts that in fact had already been commissioned and completed in England, but, for diverse reasons, had never appeared in print. All the texts chosen came from Ciné journal and Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main. I thought this translation needed some revision to make it more graceful and user-friendly, and I would have preferred a broader selection.… Read more »

Partisan [on CITIZEN LANGLOIS]

This was published in the September-October 1995 issue of Film Comment, as a sidebar to a much longer piece about Edgardo Cozarinsky. — J.R.

Partisan

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

As a member of the FIPRESCI jury at Berlin that gave this year’s Forum prize to Edgardo Cozarinsky’s 68-minute Citizen Langlois, I’d like to quote our citation: “For a brilliant essay revealing a multifaceted grasp of a major pioneer for whom cinema was the ultimate nationality.”

Indeed, at a time when much of what passes for film history is being regulated nationalistically, by state bureaucrats — a process observable in such projects as the British Film Institute’s “A Century of Cinema” series (which stepped off in Berlin with Edgar Reitz’s Night of the Directors), and in the blatantly pro-industry PBS miniseries calling itself American Cinema -– Cozarinsky’s film carries a distinct polemical charge. For Henri Langlois, the unruly and passionate founder/gatekeeper of the Cinémathèque Française spent his life railing against state bureaucracies, and most of his legacy would be unthinkable without this sustained resistance. His eclectic partisanship is more than adequately matched in a personal essay that is as much about exile as Cozarisnky’s One Man’s War and Sunset Boulevards.… Read more »

OCCASIONAL WORK OF A FEMALE SLAVE (with Yehuda Safran, 1975)

Cowritten by Yehuda Safran (a lecturer in the philosophy of art with whom I was sharing a flat in Hamstead at the time), and published in the Winter 1974/75 issue of Sight and Sound. It seems fair to say that this review (from the 1974 London Film Festival) is in some ways more Yehuda’s than mine. Note: This film has more recently been called Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave in some English-speaking countries. -– J.R.

Occasional work

‘Roswitha feels an enormous power within her,’ Alexander Kluge remarks offscreen at the outset of his latest feature, ‘and cinema teaches her that this power exists.’ The task of making the invisible visible is essentially the project of a director more concerned with social and political history than with film history, who seems to regard his work as a translation of ideas into sounds and images rather than the other way round. What matters is what the words and images ‘say’ and imply in relation to each other -– not their independent formal qualities, but their capacity of modify and explicate a complex experience.

What do Kluge’s opening words say and imply? That film is a means of translating potentiality into actuality, feeling into thought, experience into understanding –- the very problem that Roswitha Bronski (Alexandra Kluge, the director’s sister) is struggling to cope with over the film’s duration.… Read more »

Ambiguous Evidence: Cozarinsky’s “Cinema Indirect”

From the September-October 1995 issue of Film Comment. I should stress that this essay is very much out of date once one starts to consider Cozarinsky’s prolific subsequent career as both a writer and a filmmaker — although I’ve anachronistically included a few more recent book covers and film posters as illustrations, as well as a poster and two stills from his most commercially successful film to date, the 2005 Ronda Nocturna, known in English as Night Watch, in part to help make up for the impossibility of finding stills for some of the rarer films of his discussed here.

Let me also quote my Reader capsule review of Night Watch: “With a few exceptions, I prefer the literature of Edgardo Cozarinsky, an Argentinean based mainly in Paris, to his films, and his nonfiction in both realms to his fiction. But this poetic, atmospheric drama, shot in Buenos Aires, challenged my bias, mixing the natural and the supernatural, the cinematic and the literary, with such assurance that Cozarinsky no longer seems like a divided artist. Following a teenage street hustler through the night of All Saints’ Day, he turns a documentary about his hometown and its street life into a haunting piece of magical realism.Read more »

Declarations of Independents: Tenant Filmgoing

From The Soho News (May 20-26, 1981). I’m sorry that I still haven’t managed to see Vermont in 3 1/2 Minutes, a 1963 film made by a childhood friend of mine — and that I haven’t been able to find any more illustrations for the small-gauge films that I wrote about here….My expressed feeling of solidarity with Squeeze Play was no doubt inflected by the fact that I was living in Hoboken at the time. — J.R.

May 8: At Anthology Film Archives, to see a program in “Home Made Movies: 20 Years of American 8mm and Super-8 Films” — an intriguing and varied series selected by Jim Hoberman that runs through the end of next month, warmly recommended to everyone without money who nurtures fantasies about taking over the media. I learn straight away that Linda Talbot’s Vermont in 3 1/2 Minutes is being replaced by Bear and Jane Brakhage’s Peter’s Dream, a title glossed by Jonas Mekas as referring to Peter Kubelka.

This reminds me of a somewhat troubled notion that first reared its inglorious head when I had the occasion to view all the films in the Whitney’s previous Biennial. The idea is simply that a surprising number of North American avant-garde films seem to center on the same general obsession as The Deer Hunter or Manhattan — namely, a boastful inventory of male possessions: This is my hometown, my house, my rifle, my dog, my Bolex, my woman, my art.… Read more »

Paris Journal (May-June 1973)

From Film Comment (May-June 1973). — J.R.

LES IDOLES, Marc’O’s film version of his theater piece, originally opened in Paris in May, 1968, when many of its spectators were out in the street and presumably had other things to think about. It was released again early this year; but after a nominal run in one of several new mini-cinemas that have springing up lately all over the Left Bank, it seemed to vanish into oblivion a second time, only to re-emerge in a neighborhood house in early February, where it is currently playing. Talent does usually seem to find a way to reassert itself. Marc’O’s sarcastic parody about the making and merchandising of pop has nothing particularly profound or original to “say” about its subject, but it happens to have three of the liveliest performances in the modern French cinema.

Bulle Ogier, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, and Pierre Clementi, as the three pop stars, dive into their parts with such enthusiasm and expertise that the screen comes alive with their electric energies, and one can only speculate on how much more spectacular they must have been on the stage. (Despite some clever attempts at adaptation, LES IDOLES stubbornly remains another variant of filmed theater — a good thing to have, under the circumstances, but like Shirley Clarke’s ingenious recording of THE CONNECTION, it cannot really offer an equivalent to the excitements of a live performance.) A theoretical problem about parodying French rock is the fact that, at least to American ears, most of it tends to sound like parody anyway; but Ogier, Kalfon, Clementi overcome this obstacle with dazzling variations on the very notion of Star Presence.Read more »

The Mattei Affair (1975 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, June 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 497). — J.R.

Caso Mattei, Il (The Mattei Affair) Italy, 1972
Director: Francesco Rosi
27 October, 1962. The private plane of Enrico Mattei, president of ENI (Ente Nazional Idrocarburi), flying from Sicily to Milan, crashes in Bascape, killing the pilot Bertuzzi, the Time-Life reporter McHale and Mattei himself. An account follows of both the investigation into the causes of this accident (a mystery that remains unsolved) and of Mattei’s public career, revealing that diverseindividuals and organizations (from the Mafia to the CIA) had reasons for wanting to see him dead. His controversial position grew out of his efforts to use his state oil organization, AGIP, to compete with private individuals, and to deal with Third World oil-producing countries (Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia) in terms more advantageous than the 50-50 arrangement offered by the major oil companies. This project began in April 1946, when a small methane deposit was discovered in the village of Caviaga, and Mattei decided to exaggerate and exploit its value as a coal substitute in order to create his organization and gain an economic and political foothold. In the investigation running parallel to a re-enactment of his career (the latter culminating in his visit on the day of his death to Gagliano, Sicily, where he is acclaimed as a popular hero), Mauro De Marro, a Sicilian journalist reconstructing the last day of Mattei’s life for the purposes of the present film, suddenly disappears, apparently kidnapped — another unsolved mystery.… Read more »

Two 2006 Reader film blog posts (& one afterword)

Difficult Becomes Popular

 

Posted Fri, Dec 8, 2006 at 11:21 AM

 

It’s interesting to see how some of the most difficult and challenging examples of art cinema have become increasingly popular over the past decade. Back in the 60s and 70s, Robert Bresson was virtually a laughing-stock figure to mainstream critics, and someone whose films characteristically played to almost empty houses. Yet by the time that he died, a retrospective of his work that circled the globe was so successful in drawing crowds that in many venues—including Chicago’s Film Center — it had a return engagement. Much the same thing has happened with Andrei Tarkovsky — another uncompromising spiritual filmmaker, and one whose films are even tougher to paraphrase or even explain in any ordinary terms.


I’m just back from a trip to the east coast where I was gratified to find, when I turned up to introduce a screening of Jacques Rivette’s 252-minute L’amour fou (1968) in Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image, that the film was playing to a nearly packed house. (Incidentally, this galvanizing love story about the doomed relationship between a theater director and his wife, played by Jean-Pierre Kalfon and Bulle Ogier, has never looked better to me, though I’ve been a big fan since the early 70s.) Virtually everyone stayed to the end, and there was a lively and enthusiastic discussion afterwards.… Read more »

The Human Touch [THE DECALOGUE & FARGO]

From the Chicago Reader (March 29, 1996). — J.R.

The Decalogue

Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski

Written by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz

With Henryk Baranowski, Krystyna Janda, Aleksander Bardini, Daniel Olbrychski, Maria Pakulnis, Adrianna Biedrzynska, Janusz Gajos, Miroslaw Baka, Krzysztof Globisz, Jan Tesarz, Grazyna Szapolowska, Olaf Lubaszenko, Anna Polony, Maria Koscialkowska, Teresa Marczewska, Ewa Blaszczyk, Piotr Machalica, Jerzy Stuhr, and Zbigniew Zamachowski.

Fargo

Directed by Joel Coen

Written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

With Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Kristin Rudrud, Harve Presnell, Steven Reevis, John Carroll Lynch, and Steve Park.

One way of judging the importance of filmmakers is by looking at the kind of talk they generate among their audiences. Since the recent death of the 54-year-old Krzysztof Kieslowski during open-heart surgery, one of the key points of speculation about him is whether he knew when he announced his retirement a couple of years ago that he had a heart condition. As evidence that he did, one could cite the fact that the “twin” Polish and French heroines of his The Double Life of Veronique (1991) suffer from heart conditions, and one ultimately dies from hers; as evidence that he didn’t, one could note that Kieslowski was a heavy smoker and continued to smoke after his announcement (though he may have been simply reckless).… Read more »

YOU ARE NOT I/THE HONEYMOON KILLERS

Program notes for this double feature at Manhattan’s Public Theater, March 8-13, 1983. A few of the arguments here, such as the comparison of Driver with Straub, strike me now as forced, but when I recall that students in the Downtown Whitney  program during the same period compared You Are Not I abusively to The Twilight Zone (and were equally reluctant to regard John Ford as a serious artist when Straub praised him), I think my polemics were warranted….A happy postscript: both films are now available in excellent digital restorations (see below).  -– J.R.

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honeymoonkillersbr

Slow yet relentless in their narrative progressions, deliberately nonspecific in their period settings, and equally unimaginable in anything but black and white, YOU ARE NOT I (1981) and THE HONEYMOON KILLERS (1969) are both startling and achieved first films about the triumphs of inexorable wills  — each made with a kind of rigor and passion that seem oblivious to the whims of fashion. Small wonder that François Truffaut should be enthusiastic about the earlier film, with its accelerating montage of breathless love letters, its flighty camera movements and implacable bursts of Mahler; or that Jean-Marie Straub should be enthusiastic about the later one (“I liked your film ten times better than Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe movies”), with its integral use of dialectics in conception and treatment alike.… Read more »

Foreword to THE MEDIEVAL HERO ON SCREEN

Below is my Foreword to The Medieval Hero on Screen: Representations from Beowulf to Buffy (McFarland, 2004), a collection edited by Martha W. Driver and Sid Ray, minus a few editorial tweaks and abridgements. — J.R.

 

 

 

It’s a curious fact, at least to me, that I’m writing a forword to this book, even a short one. I’m neither a medievalist nor a historian; I haven’t seen many of the films discussed, and, perhaps because I spend much of my time reviewing films for a weekly newspaper, the Chicago Reader, I have seen but have mainly forgotten some of the others. As a professional film critic who occasionally gets invited to speak and teach at college campuses, I have the benefit of both close and long-range views of film history, and try to create some two-way traffic between these positions in my writing.

It has always been a handicap for film scholars that one can’t necessarily count on all the important works being widely accessible or even widely known. In the essays that follow, some of my favorite films with medieval themes and settings have only been briefly touched upon —- I’m thinking especially of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Eric Rohmer’s Perceval -— while others, including Fritz Lang’s magnificent two-part, five-hour Die Nibelungen (1924), and Les visiteurs du soir (1942), a haunting fantasy written by Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche and directed by Marcel Carné during the French Occupation, are not mentioned.Read more »